Google Makes The Case For A Hands-Off Approach To Self-Driving Cars

Feb 24, 2016

Last year, Ford asked people if they could imagine themselves buying or riding in a self-driving vehicle.

Out of the eight countries surveyed, India and China had the highest positive answers at 84 percent and 78 percent, respectively, compared to the U.S. and U.K. at 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively, the study found.

"We do have a theory about what explains the disparity between these markets, and I think it gets down to the joy of driving," says Sheryl Connelly, who tracks global trends for Ford. "And China and India you have some of the most egregious congestion. You have high road fatality, you have immature infrastructure and also I think there's not the established emotional attachment many Westerners have with their vehicles."

Connelly says the self-driving car is an imperative for an auto company in the 21st century, and many automakers have been working on a gradual progression toward more and more automation in cars.

But Google is different: It went straight ahead to create a fully automated self-driving car.

One way the company has done that is by completely taking the car out of the hands of the driver. The latest Google prototype looks like a smaller version of a Volkswagen Bug: It's a little two-seater with no steering wheel and no gas or brake pedals.

NPR's Robert Siegel is talking to several key players this week about the emerging world of self-driving cars. In the latest conversation, he spoke with Chris Urmson, technical director of the Google self-driving car project.


Interview Highlights

On why we need self-driving cars

It really starts with safety. In America, there's 33,000 people that are killed on the road every year, and to put that in perspective, that's equivalent of a 737 falling out of the sky five days a week. ... There is just a tremendous opportunity there to save lives — 94 percent of those accidents are due to human error, and the good news is we can build software and hardware that can see the road and pay attention all the time and react more quickly and keep people safe on the road. The other big aspect is accessibility. When you think about the baby boomer generation, they're starting to get to a point where they feel uncomfortable driving or their family feels uncomfortable about them driving. Making sure they have access to transportation, to continue to do all the things they do today — to go and visit their grandchildren or just to go to a coffee shop — we think that is an incredibly important use for this type of technology.

On the proposed regulations by California's Department of Motor Vehicles that self-driving cars have a licensed driver inside

We've always thought that having a driver in a vehicle while testing makes a tremendous amount of sense ... the whole point of the system is to have someone in the vehicle who can observe and keep things safe. But once the technology is actually out on the road, I think that it isn't the right answer. I think the idea is to give more people mobility, and by increasing the requirements on the person who's driving the vehicle when they should be doing less doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

On whether someone should be able to override the controls

It really depends what you mean by "take over controls." You wouldn't imagine that in the back of a taxi, we put an extra steering wheel or brake pedal there for the passenger to grab ahold of anytime. It would just be crazy to think about doing that. But at the same time, I could imagine that there are vehicles where most of the days you don't really want to drive it, so let it take you to and from work in the morning, for example, but on the weekend when you get a chance to get out onto some open road, that you might enjoy driving in that location. But I think the idea that you want the person to jump in who hasn't been paying attention or maybe had a couple of drinks with dinner and then jump in to override is probably not the right idea.

On a video in a TED Talk he gave about different situations the car has encountered

This is actually one of the funnest videos we have. Our car was out testing one day and as it comes around the corner, there's a woman in an electric wheelchair with a broom in her hand, chasing a duck and she chases it and they end up wheeling around, I suppose, on the road in a figure eight for a few moments and then run off the side of the road. And it's one of those situations that really highlights the challenges of what we're trying to do. There is nowhere in a DMV handbook or a federal regulation what you should do when there is a woman chasing a duck on a road. So our cars have to be able to recognize that this is a very unusual situation, let it kind of slow down, give it some space to play out because as a human watching you have no idea what's going to happen next. And then once the roads clear, then carry on your way. And today, our cars are starting to be able to do this.

Earlier, Siegel spoke about self-driving cars with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Brian Soublet of the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Ask American drivers whether they want a computer to drive their car for them, and you might get an overwhelmingly negative response.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Not me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Absolutely not.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yes, if that computer is accurate and there's no bugs in it.

SIEGEL: Well, that's what we heard from drivers this week at the nation's capital, but federal and state governments are now in the process of changing the rules to allow cars to drive themselves. And automakers aren't just asking American drivers what they think about it. Sheryl Connelly tracks global trends for Ford.

SHERYL CONNELLY: We did a study last year, and we asked people, could you imagine yourself buying or riding in a self-driving vehicle? And the two countries that came in the highest of the eight that we surveyed was India at 84 percent saying yes and China at 78 percent. Now, compare that to the U.S. and the U.K. which came in at 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

SIEGEL: Do you ask people whether they enjoy driving?

CONNELLY: We did not ask that question per se. We do have a theory about what explains the disparity between these markets, and I think it gets down to the joy of driving. In China and India, you have some of the most egregious congestion. You have high road fatalities, and also, I think, there is not the established emotional connection that many Westerners have with their vehicles.

SIEGEL: The Beach Boys were not an Indian or a Chinese group.

CONNELLY: They weren't.

SIEGEL: A self-driving car might not make for much of a song, but Sheryl Connelly says that it is an imperative for any auto company in the 21st century. And many automakers have been working on a gradual progression toward more and more automation in cars. Google is different. Its approach is, go straight to a fully automated, self-driving vehicle. Their model looks like a small VW bug - a two- seater. Inside, there's no steering wheel, no pedals, and it's not driving around China or India. It's driving around Mountain View, Calif. That's where Chris Urmson has led Google's car project for some time. He's currently the project's technical director. California is also where the DMV has proposed requiring a licensed driver inside. Urmson says that makes sense only for the testing period.

CHRIS URMSON: Now the software's being developed. The whole point of the system is to have someone in the vehicle who can observe and keep the thing safe. But once the technology's actually ready to be out on the road, I think that it isn't the right answer. I think the idea is to give more people mobility, and by increasing the requirements on the person who's driving the vehicle when they should be doing less doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

SIEGEL: Should somebody be able to override the controls and take over driving a self-driving car?

URMSON: It really depends what you mean by take over controls. So you wouldn't imagine that in the back of a taxi we'd put an extra steering wheel or break pedal there for the passenger to grab a hold of at any time. It would just be crazy to think about doing that. But at the same time, I could imagine that there are vehicles where most of the days, you don't really want to drive it, so let it take you to and from work in the morning, for example. But on the weekend, when you get a chance to get out onto some open road - that you might enjoy driving in that location. But I think the idea that you want the person to jump in who hasn't been paying attention or, maybe, you know, had a couple of drinks with dinner and then jump into override is probably not the right idea.

SIEGEL: Well, what about this scenario. I'm in the self-driving car on a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit road, and I notice that I'm the only car doing 55 miles per hour. Can I override to get with the flow of traffic?

URMSON: So a few years ago when we tested a freeway version of a self-driving car, we had a hundred-plus of our Google employees use the car in their daily lives to get, you know, to and from work or wherever else they were going. In those vehicles, we did put a little button that they could say, go a little bit faster. I think the cars themselves should be bound by the rule of law and should drive at the speed limit. That's why we set the speed limits, is because we think that's the safe speed for travel.

SIEGEL: Do you regard matters of insurance and liability as settled as we approach the age of the self-serving car? That is, if the person inside the car is not operating the vehicle, is Google on the hook for whatever collision the auto might contribute to?

URMSON: I don't know that settled is the right word. The question will be, once this technology is out in the market and we're seeing the benefits from it, do we want to then adjust the liability and insurance frameworks that we have much the same way that we did for vaccines and for air travel?

SIEGEL: In a TED Talk that you've given and that people can go watch, you demonstrated a wide variety of situations that the Google vehicle and tests has encountered. The strangest one is - can you just describe it? It's a woman in a wheelchair.

URMSON: Yeah. So this is actually one of the funnest videos we have, is - our car was out testing one day, and as it comes around the corner, there's a woman in an electric wheelchair with a broom in her hand chasing a duck. And she chases it, and they end up wheeling around, I suppose, in the road in a figure eight for a few moments and then run off the side of the road. And it's one of those situations that really highlights the challenges of what we're trying to do.

There's nowhere in a DMV handbook or a federal regulation what you should do when there's a woman chasing a duck in the road. And so our cars have to be able to recognize that this is a very unusual situation, let it kind of slow down, give it some space to play out because as a human watching, you have no idea what's going to happen next - and then once the road's clear, then carry on their way. And today, our cars are starting to be able to do this.

SIEGEL: You haven't built in a synthetic voice in a speaker that says, lady, get out of the road or something like that?

URMSON: No, we haven't yet. It might've been a good solution in this case but not something we've tried.

SIEGEL: Well, Chris Urmson, thanks a lot for talking with us.

URMSON: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Chris Urmson is technical director of Google's self-driving car project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.